Yemen: Shia Fight For Survival In The North


November 15, 2013: In the north pro-government Sunni tribesmen have been blocking road traffic which has caused shortages of food and fuel and higher prices for what does get through. Shia tribesmen are now attacking the roadblocks and there have been a growing number of skirmishes. All this armed activity on the roads is making many truck drivers reluctant to even attempt deliveries to some northern towns. The Shia are also blocking road access to the Sunni town and several others that they are fighting for control of in an effort to shut down a Sunni religious school. The fighting in the north has left over 160 dead and over 500 wounded since it began on October 30 th .

The Sunni tribes in the north have been fighting the Shia tribes for generations. The center of the current violence is the siege of a Sunni town about 40 kilometers south of the Saudi border by Shia tribesmen. The town (Damaj) contains a Sunni religious school that has been there since the late 1970s but now has many foreign students. According to the Shia tribes the school is now producing Sunni Islamic radicals who seek to kill Shia (as Sunni religious conservatives consider Shia heretics).

The Shia tribes up north have been demanding more autonomy for decades, and the Sunni tribes up there oppose that. The Shia violence has been getting worse since 2004 and escalated further when most Yemenis joined the Arab Spring movement in 2011 and removed a long-time government headed by a northern Shia. While the north has several entirely Shia tribes, Sunnis and Shia had lived together peacefully throughout Yemen for centuries and usually used the same mosques (some led by Shia clergy, most by Sunnis). That tradition is being attacked by Yemeni Sunnis who are using violence or threats of violence to drive Shia from mosques throughout the country. This is a widely unpopular move, but the Sunni Islamic radicals are on a Mission From God, not a popularity contest. The Sunni radicals also accuse Yemeni Shia of being agents for Iran, which is only true in a few instances. The Shia tribes renounce any Iranian connection because they are caught between a Sunni majority to the south and a Sunni (and very anti-Iran) Saudi Arabia to the north. Just across the border there are related Shia tribes in Saudi Arabia, who have long since learned to keep quiet and enjoy the slice of Saudi oil wealth they receive from the government.

Taking advantage of the military’s preoccupation with al Qaeda in the south, the northern Shia tribes have, over the last two years, quietly driven many government officials out of three provinces and established a degree of autonomy. This has angered the Sunni tribes up there and created growing pressure from northern Sunni tribes to move some troops from the south to the north to push back this Shia control. Although Iran denies supporting the Shia tribes, the mood up there is very pro-Iran. The tribesmen shout the same anti-American and anti-Israel slogans the Iranians are so fond of. The government has caught smugglers trying to deliver Iranian weapons to the northern tribes and it’s no secret that the Shia tribes are getting a lot of cash from somewhere. The most likely source is Iran.

The army is concerned about the loyalty of some of its troops in the south. In late October eight soldiers stationed with the 111th brigade in Abyan province were arrested and accused of collaborating with al Qaeda.

November 14, 2013: China has offered to increase investment in and trade with Yemen if the government can protect Chinese working in Yemen. This may be a problem, as the Chinese tend to bring in Chinese workers for construction projects. This, to the locals, appears to be taking jobs away from Yemenis who are in desperate need of work.

In part because of the growing economic and political problems, Yemen is seeing fewer refugees coming across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. This year it appears that only about 85,000 refugees will land, which is down nearly 20 percent from last year. Another factor reducing the flow of refugees is the Saudi crackdown on illegal migrants. Over a million have been sent home in the last year, many to the countries that most of the refugees landing in Yemen come from. Yemen is hosting over a million refugees from Africa, most of them brought over by Yemeni smugglers (most get to Yemen via Somali and other African smugglers). About half the refugees are from Somalia. Hosting all these people is an economic burden, even if foreign aid is used to supply most of the refugee needs. But with worsening water shortages and growing unemployment, even the foreign aid does not solve all the problems the refugees cause. Yemen has been unable to get other countries to provide more help, in part because a lot of the aid is stolen by Yemenis.

In the south (Abyan province) two air strikes killed five al Qaeda men. The government is implying that all air strikes against al Qaeda targets are by Yemeni warplanes, when most are actually by American UAVs. But the use of these UAVs has become a popular media topic and generally criticized. But if the damage is done by manned Yemeni bombers, that is considered acceptable.

November 12, 2013: Al Qaeda openly promised to avenge the Shia attacks on Sunni Islamic radicals in the north. Shia attacks on a village containing a Sunni religious school have left over a hundred dead so far.

In the southern port of Aden a court sentenced the nine man crew of a cargo ship to prison (for up to 10 years) for smuggling Iranian weapons to Shia tribesmen in Yemen. The cargo ship was seized on January 23rd.

November 11, 2013: A ceasefire between Shia and Sunni tribesmen in the north collapsed after less than a day.

November 9, 2013: A ceasefire between Shia and Sunni tribesmen in the north collapsed after less than a day. The lull in fighting did allow the Red Cross to remove 44 wounded from the combat zone and deliver medical supplies to both sides.

November 8, 2013: In the south (Abyan province) an air strike killed seven al Qaeda men.

November 5, 2013: In the southeast police arrested four men believed to be Islamic terrorists responsible for recent attacks on military commanders.

A ceasefire between Shia and Sunni tribesmen in the north collapsed after a few hours.                                                        

November 4, 2013: For the first time since September tribesmen bombed a portion of the oil pipeline that goes to a Red Sea terminal. The pipeline had been bombed regularly this year. Each attack takes anywhere from a day to a week to repair. These bombings interrupt export of 125,000 barrels a day. Exporting this oil supplies 70 percent of the government budget. Tribes living near the pipeline want to be paid more to “protect” (not attack) it.

A ceasefire between Shia and Sunni tribesmen in the north collapsed after a few hours.

In Saudi Arabia the amnesty period for illegal residents ended and police are now seeking out over 100,000 illegal residents still believed to be in the country. The amnesty period led to a million foreigners (mostly from Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Yemen) leaving voluntarily. Another four million got legal jobs and permission to stay. About a third of the Saudi population of 27 million consists of foreign workers. That has made it difficult for Saudis to find work and the campaign against illegal workers is meant to reduce the Saudi unemployment (officially 12.5 percent but unofficially over 15 percent). Saudis prefer low-stress government jobs and over 80 percent of the non-government jobs are held by foreigners. The vast oil income allows the government to provide generous unemployment or welfare payments for Saudis (unemployed foreigners get sent home). But as the number of unemployed Saudis increased, the cost of supporting them became more than the oil income could handle. So for over a decade the government has made increasingly aggressive efforts to get jobs for Saudis (including many who prefer to just collect unemployment). Over 100,000 Yemenis were forced to flee Saudi Arabia because of the current effort and that has increased the economic problems in Yemen.

November 3, 2013: A ceasefire between Shia and Sunni tribesmen in the north collapsed after less than a day.                   

October 31, 2013: In the south (Abyan province) six soldiers died in clashes with al Qaeda.

In the north there have been several hundred casualties in and around the town of Damaj as Shia tribesmen try to take the town and shut down a Sunni religious school there.



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